Page last updated at 08:15 GMT, Thursday, 14 July 2005 09:15 UK

Interview: New Lib Dem chairman

By Jackie Storer
BBC News political reporter

Paul Holmes' election to Lib Dem parliamentary party chairman was seen by some as a shot across leader Charles Kennedy's bows.

After all, the confident, ambitious 48-year-old is a relatively unknown backbencher compared to Matthew Taylor, the man he succeeds.

Paul Holmes
Holmes: You can't keep everyone happy
Not only is Mr Taylor, the party's former Treasury spokesman, a close friend of Mr Kennedy - he is said to have been the leader's preferred choice for the job.

Mr Holmes, a former politics teacher and Chesterfield councillor, is the first person to be elected (by 36 votes to 23) into the prestigious position.

Up until recently, when Mr Kennedy changed the rules, it had been the job of the party leader to do the king making.

Many are widely interpreting Mr Holmes's success over a Kennedy man as a sign of dissatisfaction with the leadership.

The background is that some MPs believe the party should have gained more than 11 extra seats at the May general election - now 12 seats since the Cheadle by-election.

Happy canvasser

They are also disappointed that their "decapitation strategy" - to win seats from senior members of the Conservative party - only claimed one scalp.

But whatever the reasons behind his success, Mr Holmes, MP for Chesterfield - former stomping ground of Labour veteran Tony Benn - greets the controversy with a shrug.

When Charles became leader someone said, 'oh, you've got to become like Paddy - you've got to be really gregarious and over the top' and he said 'no'
Paul Holmes

"You will always have some people who disagree with what somebody's doing," he said.

"But then there will be people who disagree with what I do as chair of the party, because you can't keep everybody happy.

"Matthew is a very close friend of Charles and has been for a long time, but I've long been a supporter of Charles."

He says he is unsurprised to get the key post, which involves representing all Lib Dem MPs, not just the backbenchers, chairing weekly meetings and attending the shadow cabinet as a representative of the party as a whole.

His success was down to extensive canvassing of his colleagues and the fact that he is from the "newer" intake of MPs, having been elected in 2001, he says.

'Over optimistic'

He also believes with the increased size of the party (it now has 62 MPs) the old ways of making decisions, involving groups of acquaintances "sitting around chatting over a cup of coffee" have had their day.

However, Mr Holmes is eager to flag up his pro-Kennedy credentials and defends the party for not winning more seats at May's general elections.

Charles Kennedy
Holmes on Kennedy: He's an honest guy who people like
He recalls how in 1988, when the merger of the SDP with the Liberals was taking place, he tried to persuade Mr Kennedy to head up the new party.

"He was effectively saying he wasn't experienced, and all the rest of it, at the time," said Mr Holmes.

And he says those who were reckoning the party could win a 100 or more seats in this summer's election were being "fairly over optimistic".

"Sometimes that does happen - but it is pretty rare under the first past the post system that you get a third party winning such a mass number of seats in one fell swoop."

To be an extrovert?

While he says the flame-haired leader could not be described as "dynamic", Mr Holmes argues that Mr Kennedy is popular with the punters.

"When Charles became leader someone said, 'oh, you've got to become like Paddy - you've got to be really gregarious and over the top' and he said 'no, that's just not me - I can't act in that sort of role. I will lead in the style that I am'. And clearly that has paid off.

"Now if you're not that sort of clubbable, over the top sort of person obviously some people will say you need somebody whose more in that mould, but personally, I've always been incredibly suspicious of politicians in that mould.

Charles had a very rough time as leader at that time, taking flak not just from all the hundreds of Labour MPs in front of him, but from the 166 Tories who were baying over his shoulder for his blood
Paul Holmes

"I mean Margaret Thatcher's an example, Blair's another one - where they are so extrovert and leading from the front and convinced that they're right and everyone else is wrong that they end up going down lots of blind alleys from poll tax to ID cards to invasion of Iraq, even though all the evidence says you shouldn't do it.

"But they are so certain that they're right and I think a more collegiate style of leadership, which is what Charles has got, is the style of leadership I very much prefer.

"But it's not the sort of simple black and white leadership that appeals to the press. It does appeal in the first instance to members of the public."

Mr Holmes said Paddy Ashdown had been "a massive asset as a leader", but halfway through this election campaign, he noticed how people really warmed to Mr Kennedy.

"They really liked him, he's an honest guy. He's like the guy who lives next door. I personally would prefer that sort of style to the dynamic one."

Effective opposition

Mr Holmes says he does not think a fresher face is needed to take over the reins.

"I think, given his record of leading us through the two most successful elections, if he wants to lead us into the next election, he's not going to be challenged," he said.

"He said after the 2005 election, he wanted to take us into 2009. I wrote to him privately congratulating him and said I'd be very happy with that."

Matthew Taylor
Matthew Taylor is a close friend of Charles Kennedy

Mr Holmes says he is no doubt that the Lib Dems have been the "effective opposition party" in their strong, yet risky, stance against the Iraq war.

"It did pay off electorally in the long run. But people thought we were writing a suicide note at the time," he said.

"Charles had a very rough time as leader at that time, taking flak not just from all the hundreds of Labour MPs in front of him, but from the 166 Tories who were baying over his shoulder for his blood, calling him a coward and white feathers.

Mr Holmes, who is married to Raelene, a councillor, has three children - Eleanor, 20, Richard, 16 and Rhiannon, 12. He joined the SDP in 1983 and has lived in Chesterfield for over 25 years.

Leadership bid?

He is very proud of winning Chesterfield in 2001 - it had been in Labour hands for more than 70 years - but says it was "very easy" taking over the seat from retiring left-wing veteran Tony Benn.

"He wasn't somebody who was at all assiduous about looking after his constituency, so replacing him in Chesterfield itself - not a problem," he said.

He believes three-party politics is here to stay and says he does not think the Lib Dems need to veer to the left of Labour or the right of the Tories to pick up seats.

"There's a huge centre ground of floating voters who are unhappy with the old left-wing and right-wing certainties," he said.

"Who do you have to pitch for to win? Well, neither."

Mr Holmes, who says he likes walking in the Peak District and "drinking real ale" in the pub, is coy when asked whether he sees himself as a future Lib Dem leader.

"Do you go through all that to be elected and not want to do it? Yes, in that sense, but it's a crowded field and it's always the kiss of death for people to say they want to do it.

"Who knows? As a lad from a council estate in Sheffield and the first in his family to go to university, whose family thought becoming a teacher was the epitome of success at the end of the 70s - I don't think I have done too badly actually."

Kennedy's Iraq comments attacked
13 Jul 05 |  UK Politics
Taylor loses Lib Dem chairmanship
16 Jun 05 |  Cornwall
Kennedy keeps Lib Dem leadership
14 Jun 05 |  UK Politics

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